Updated: Nov 8
In front of you over here is every single card that you all have given to me over the past 5 years. In this pile are big cards, small cards, Hallmark cards, homemade cards, birthday cards, anniversary cards, thank you cards, just cause cards, I’ve kept all of them. (Except for the couple that had glitter on them. I don’t like glitter).
But as for the rest of them, they’ve lived in this box, in a drawer in my office. And if I’m having a bad day, or receive some bad news, I can pull out one or two of them and find some much needed encouragement.
Maybe you’ve got a collection of cards like this at home somewhere too. Cards that you treasure, cards written by the ones you love and you love you too. Even if you haven’t kept some or all of them, you and I both know, there’s nothing quite like receiving and reading a handwritten card.
And this morning we are going to look at different kind of card of sorts, a letter to be more precise. In one sense, it’s a letter written to someone else, the 1st century church in a town called Colossae. And yet in another sense, it’s a letter for all times and all places, written to us as well, the 21st century church here in Dillon, Montana. It’s Paul’s letter to the Colossians and it’s where we’ll be camping out for the next 10-12 weeks.
So hopefully you’ve still got your bibles open. Each and every week, I’m going to invite you to have your bibles open with me as I preach. That may feel a little odd at first and maybe even a little tedious at times, but here’s why:
First, I benefited greatly from our sermon series on the 10 Commandments and I hope you did too. But throughout a good chunk of it, I felt a little lost at sea, untethered to scripture at times, as if we were on a boat together without an anchor. Thankfully, with Colossians, as we go through this short book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse, our anchor has now found bottom.
In addition, another reason I want you to have your bibles open is because I want you to see where I’m getting my material from. In other words, with scripture in hand, I want you to be able to check my work. Students, you know how your math teachers tell you that you can’t just give the answer, you also have to show your work? It’s frustrating, I know. Like, why do I have to show my work and show you that 5x5 equals 50 ? Like, I just don’t get it.
Anyway, the reason why I want to show my work with the bible is that I want you all to see where I’m getting what I’m getting in part so that you too can read your bible for yourselves.
So friends, keep those bibles open as we now begin Paul’s letter to the Colossians. It’s a beautiful book and I think it will serve as a nice change of pace from the last couple months of sermons. Where if, the 10 Commandments were like hydrogen peroxide (like, yes, I can see how this is good for me, but gosh, it stings a little) then Colossians, or at least the first chapter of it, is like sweet tea on the front porch or hot chocolate by the campfire. Just warm feelings everywhere. Just good vibes mostly.
And so, for today, we’re going to raise and answer three questions. Three questions that will not only help us better understand these first eight verses, but also the book as a whole.
Who is this letter from?
Who is this letter to?
Why was this letter written?
First, who is the letter from?
The letter begins as most New Testament letters begin, with a greeting that not only specifies who the letter is from, but also serves as a mini biography of sorts. Notice how Paul introduces himself verse 1:
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God
You see, if you had told a younger version of Paul that he would one day write a letter to a Christian church encouraging their faith in Christ, he would have thought you were insane.
For early in his life, Paul, then known as Saul, was an enemy of the early church. He persecuted Christians, violently so, and threw them into prison.
Until one day, he had a miraculous conversion experience on the Damascus Road. You can find that story in Acts 8, when he had a divine encounter with the risen Christ. And his life was changed forever.
By the will of God as it were, Paul became an apostle of Christ Jesus. Going from persecutor to pastor, from enemy to an evangelist for Christ. Given a new identity, with a new purpose. In fact, the word apostle means “to be sent out” – Paul was being “sent out” to proclaim Christ Jesus and plant new churches.
And so that introductory greeting that Paul gives in verse 2, Grace and peace to you from God our Father, is far more than nice pleasantries. It’s his very experience. He has experienced grace, in other words, unmerited favor from God, he’s experienced a new love and he’s received a new life. And he wants that for the Colossians as well.
This letter is written, by Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother. Timothy, by the way, is Paul’s young apprentice of sorts, his associate pastor if you will. Lots more could be said about Timothy, but for time’s sake, let’s now move to that second question:
Who is this letter to? Verse 2 says,
2 To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ:
Colossae itself was a small town in what we now know as Western Turkey, a town overshadowed by larger towns nearby such as Laodicea.
And when Paul addresses God’s holy people in Colossae, faithful brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s clueing us into the fact that Paul is writing to the church that got started in Colossea years before.
From what we can tell, the church in Colossae got its start some 20 years after Paul’s conversion experience, sometime shortly after Paul’s third missionary journey. Paul had been traveling throughout his life sharing the gospel, and during that third missionary journey in the mid 50’s AD, a man by the name of Epaphras became a follower of Jesus, and it was Epaphras who then took the good news of Jesus to the town of Colossae. We see this confirmed in verse 6, where it says, “You learned it [that is, the gospel] from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant.” Long story short, Paul shared the gospel with Epaphras, who then shared it with the people of Colossae. And by the grace of God, a church was born.
And here’s what we know about the church in Colossae. They were faithful (see again verse 2) and even more Paul praises them and thanks God for their faith in Jesus Christ and their love for all of God’s people (that’s in verse 4), a faith and love rooted in the hope stored up in heaven for them. Put simply, the church in Colossae was a really great church, grounded in hope, known for their faith, overflowing in love – all because of Jesus.
In addition, they were also a rather young church. Here we’re connecting a few dots that take us outside of these initial verses. For we know that Paul’s third missionary journey was in the mid 50’s AD, and we know that this letter was written around 61 or 62 AD, while Paul was imprisoned in Rome, which altogether means that the church itself is somewhere in the ballpark of 5-8 years old, a church that’s essentially in 1st or 2nd grade, and their youthfulness as a community, and as a church, will end up informing the purpose of the letter itself.
But for now, think about how our church compares to the church in Colossae long ago. In fact, let’s consider the question briefly, are we, the First Presbyterian Church in Dillon, Montana, an old church or a young church? I think the answer is a strange and beautiful combination of both.
On one hand, we’re an old church. Look outside on the blue sign and you’ll see that we’ve been serving this community since 1888. If we wanted to, we could celebrate our 135th anniversary this year and within this room are members who have been here since the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s. We’re on the older end, and yet, on another hand, we’re also kind of a new church.
On any given Sunday, half or more of those attending started attending here in the last 5 years, and on the Sundays our kids’ choir sings that number is ¾ or more. That’s quite a bit of turnover, a good bit of newness, in a relatively short period of time.
Within this group, there are those who are considering following Jesus for the first time, others who have been let down by other churches in the past, those who are reengaging with their faith for the first time since they moved out of their parents’ house, and in midst of all of this, those who are reading Colossians for the very first time. To be clear, none of that is bad. Rather, it is all very good. I simply connect those dots for us to highlight one way in which this letter from long ago might uniquely speak to us today.
All of which brings us to this very important third question, Why was this letter written?
Here’s the most likely scenario: Epaphras, the one who planted this church, somehow made his way to Rome, where Paul was imprisoned and shared with him how things were going within the Colossian church. You can imagine the conversation, “Oh, things are going great, their faith in Christ is strong, their love for God’s people is palpable, the church has grown over time, more and more people have decided to follow Jesus, and so on.” We see this in verse 3, where Paul begins with a thank you note of sorts, thanking God, “because we have heard of your faith in Christ and the love you have for all God’s people.”
And yet, great as that all is, and it is, Epaphras must have said more. Somewhere in the conversation, Epaphras must have told Paul that there were some concerning things, things he needed help with, outside pressures and false teachings that were challenging their faith and practice, their loyalty and reliance on Christ and their life as a church. We’ll learn more when we get to chapter 2 where Paul picks up on Epaphras’ concerns. And when we do, we’ll likely pick up on some of the threats and challenges that many, if not all churches face, as well those specific to us.
All in all, when you put it all together, what you get is this: Paul wrote this letter to commend the young Colossian church for their faith in Christ, to teach and correct them where they were tempted to go astray, and to encourage them to remain in Christ.
In fact, chapter 2, verse 6, in so many ways, serves as the defining, central verse of the entire book:
6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
Here we find a central theme of the Christian life, no matter the church or century. That Jesus is not someone that we simply put our faith in at the beginning of our life as Christians, but someone we continue to lean on, for our identity, for our purpose, for our salvation, for everything. Throughout these next few weeks, just as you’ve received Christ Jesus as Lord, may you continue to live your lives in him.
So there you have it, three questions raised, three questions answered, a letter written by Paul, written to the Colossian church, so that this young and growing church who had received Christ Jesus as Lord would continue to live their lives in him.
And so, with all that said, a homework assignment for you all. One thing I want to encourage you towards over this next week. And that is, I want you to read or listen to the entire book between now and next Sunday. Now trust me, that’s not as daunting as it seems. Colossians is short and sweet, 4 chapters long and takes about 14min to read aloud or to listen to through an audio bible. That’s right, 14 minutes! Many of you could listen to the entire book during your commute to work or to church with room to spare.
So go ahead and start familiarizing yourself with this little book. In addition, get in the habit of reading the Sunday scripture beforehand if you can. For example, we’ll look at verses 9-14 next Sunday. Chances are, you’ll get far more out of these messages if you do.
Alright, to finish, I’ve got a little surprise. And you can close your bibles now, by the way. Throughout the years, you’ve written your fair share of cards and letters to me. Today, I’ve written one for you. So here it goes:
I always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, when I pray for you, because I know firsthand of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people.
I knew it the moment I met you, when you met us in our driveway and helped us move in, and I’ve seen it ever since.
I see it in your warm welcome towards one another and in the way you greet my children and all children for that matter. I see it in patient and gentle fathers, I see it in strong and faithful mothers, I see it when men gather around a bonfire to become more intentional fathers, and when couples gather to strengthen their marriages, and when our kids are greeted by a cheering squad of adults on Wednesday afternoons as they get off the #6 bus.
I hear it in the friendly banter that happens before the service, in preludes and introits and offertories and more. I hear it when children sing and bells ring, when guitars string and coffee mugs cling and in the thundering footsteps of kids chasing each other around the building. I hear it when the chancel choir laughs together during their morning rehearsals and when I heard the story about the Wednesday morning bible study that bonded inside a car.
I feel it when we’re invited into people’s homes to share communion with them, I feel it when we worship alongside and sing with the elderly saints at the Beehive, in tired yet joyful camp volunteers, when middle schoolers race up to loft to study the catechism, in high schoolers who get up early to grow as disciples, and in an a prayer warrior group that just keeps praying.
I see it in Joanne Meier’s face when she sees Ann Swanson is there to visit, I see it in a Chris Longley flower and in a Marie Hamilton prayer, in a Barb Malesich card and a Dorothy Wheeler quilt. In a Patti Warren pastry, in homemade communion bread from Ron Loge, and in homemade goods too many to count.
I see it In Shani’s weekly worship leader email, in Ashly Cottom’s Sunday School lessons, in Laurie Hagenbarth’s gentle correction and steady hand, and in meals and furnishings and rent payments for a couple you’ve never met.
I hear it when Lois Woodard reads scripture, when Liz Wright shared her testimony at camp, and in the way my son Noah talks about spending time with Tori.
I feel it in Cindy Coad’s encouragement, in a Mel Rice handshake, in courageous, forward thinking elders, in the risky faithfulness of the people who brought me here, and how some of you have an uncanny ability to know when I’m not okay.
I see it in Carol Simonsen’s quiet, faithful service, when Cathy Cottom and her dog Sissy make Beehive visits and in Laura Malesich’s vision to see our youth know Christ.
I feel it when middle schoolers cover me with silly string. In Betty Gilliland’s sanctified humor, in Elaine Davies too.
I see it in the way that Eric Hammer adored his mom Lois, in sons and daughters who cherish and honor their aging parents, in the way Alison Lovaas runs her kindergarten classroom, and how Aaron Cashmore runs her classroom too.
I see it in your gifts, your prayers, your cards, your words, your actions too, a reflection of the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you.
And Lord willing, we aren’t done yet. Friends, with Jesus, in Christ, there’s always more. More truths to be cherished, more scripture to be read, more prayers to be prayed, more life to be lived, more ways we can serve, more people to be loved.
6 So then, as the Apostle Paul once said to some church long ago, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.